I was worried that I was getting a bit fed up of singing ‘500 Miles’ every year in an Alpine cave.
There I was, back for the eighth time in the French Alps with a wonderful and very international group of 75 people from L’Arche. It’s a week-long event called the ‘Walking retreat’ and the cave is where we always go on the Wednesday. The walking begins on the Monday with a ‘tester’ hike of a few kilometres, including some steep bits to check that everyone is fit for Tuesday’s walk, which is up a proper mountain, La Scia, whose summit is just under 2000m. Getting to the top (besides a lot of walking up-hill!) includes going along a narrow trail which is very close to a cliff edge. I don’t think it would be allowed in the U.K. with Health & Safety being what it is: nor the climb into the cave on the Wednesday, involving as it does a final scramble up an almost vertical bit of rock face right next to a waterfall whilst clinging onto a rope. In the more than 20 years that the retreat has been going nobody has been lost yet! One of the women in my small group (we walk each day in 8 groups within the larger group), was pretty scared when she saw the route up to the cave but so proud when she made it in.
I was one of the last into the cave and the music was already in full swing, with my musical partner Emmanuel knocking out some French songs on his guitar which some of the younger guys had kindly carried up the mountain (rather them than me). We also had with us this year a lovely young German woman Annika who had brought her ukulele. The crowd wanted ‘500 Miles’, and who was I to disappoint them. I’d done it the previous two years in the cave, as well as at other times in the week, and it had been an utterly magical experience. This time it was very good but the fact that it wasn’t absolutely exhilarating made it feel like a let-down. ‘Maybe I’ve just done this too many times’, I said to myself, a little sadly, ‘the song, the cave, the Alps retreat’. And I wondered if it was time to call it a day.
I had an interesting dream that night. I owed one of the young guys €20 for drinks (in reality, the young guys had been treating me to post-river beers: yes, we go after the day’s walking to swim in a mountain river which is absolutely freezing but so, so special) and gave him a €50 note in expectation of him giving me €30 in change. He gave me two notes which I thought must be a €20 and a €10 but when I looked more closely I saw that he’d given me a €20 note and a €50 note. The message of the dream seemed to be that I’d given quite a lot but had been given back even more. I shared the dream at breakfast with a woman who had been telling me about her dreams during the retreat. I also told her about my slightly complicated feelings at the cave. She told me that I just had to sing something different next year! But then later that day David who organises the retreat said to me with his face glowing: “500 Miles: that song is at the heart of the retreat for me”! And I thought to myself ‘hey, singing that song every year in a cave in the French Alps with a fantastic bunch of people and sharing a joyful moment with them: it’s not really a terrible hardship, is it!’
Music is an important element of the retreat and there are certain ‘hit songs’ each year from the booklet and which get stuck into people’s heads which is kind of nice to see. On the Friday morning after the final talk and before the last walk there was time for one more song. Emmanuel and I thought a few moments. Which of the great songs we’d done that week were we going to go out walking to? Yes, of course: ‘500 miles’. I toned it down a little and it worked just fine and everyone loved it and so did I.
We leave on the Saturday morning and a lot of the group catch a bus down to Grenoble to catch trains or buses. Annika got out her ukulele and everyone sang and it was so uplifting and she even did a good ukulele version of 500 Miles (I’ll suggest that to The Proclaimers next time I see them!! They must get a bit fed up as well sometimes with singing it!). We went into the station waiting-room and got the instruments out and started to sing. It was such a lovely way to end the retreat, an outpouring and sharing of sheer joy. Lots of people who passed by began to smile and to give the thumbs up. Several took videos on their phones. A message came through later from some of those who’d caught a bus to say that there was a man on the bus who was listening to a video of us singing at the station! And David informed me later on the train that videos had been posted on the station Facebook page. As we were launching into 500 Miles an office door opened and a member of the station staff asked if we could just turn it down a little! No problem: it was slightly less exuberant, but no less wonderful because of that.
The Alps retreat is an experience of having the heart filled to overflowing with sheer goodness. And I suppose I’ll be back again next year for No. 9 (as long as I’m invited). And I’m sure I’ll be singing again:
And I would walk 500 Miles, and I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles to fall down at your door.